After my recent blog post about my grandpa, my mom and I chatted a bit about his past. She clarified some of my inaccuracies and provided me with more information on other topics. I wanted to write some of it down before I forgot it. Hopefully I’ll be able to achieve a balance here of showing you some of the cool things my grandpa did, while avoiding the cookie cutter “I got into woodworking because of my grandpa…” bit. I do understand why Popular Woodworking doesn’t want that kind of topic for its End Grain articles, but I also want to get some information written down, even if just for my own future reference.
Among the various jobs he had over his lifetime, my grandpa was a cabinet maker for several years. He built his own cabinet shop in the 1940’s. The building is long gone, the location now a parking lot at the Saint Louis University Eye Hospital. He had one employee and mom thinks he might have always used pallet wood; he always did after she was aware of what he did for a living, in any case. That resonates well with me, if you can imagine.
In addition to the things I already listed in Nostalgia, Part Deux (blocks, a kid’s sized workbench, a cutting board, and the kitchen countertop), he also made a baby bed and child-sized stove, china cabinet, and doll beds. He made a lot of the equipment he used as an artist. I’d hate to see the condition they are in, but we might have a few easels somewhere on the farm. I think they’re in the garage (you don’t know how much this scares me). Mom says they are more likely in the basement (this does nothing to alleviate my fears).
He made kitchen cabinets for at least a decade. After that, he became a layout and design commercial artist. He did lettering on advertising signs for a living. NO STENCILS! (Before I updated it, my last blog entry said they were “hand stenciled” letters on the blocks; I meant to say they were hand-painted. I knew he did them by hand, I just used the wrong word.) Mom said he stayed up late at night practicing his lettering for
months years in order to get good enough to get the advertising job.
Over the weekend, I made a trip down to the farm and got some pictures of the blocks and the workbench. My mom sent me some pictures of the cutting board, as well.
The blocks came with trays and extra boards that had themed words on them – days of the week, farm animals, fruits, that sort of thing – I’m pretty sure his intent was for them to be learning aids as well as toys.
The blocks are full-mitered hollow cubes with a shellac finish.
One has gone MIA over the years – I have no idea what happened to it, though I’m pretty certain it was not done on my watch. Apparently, there were only ever 13 blocks (something about there being 26 letters in the alphabet and using half that many blocks to make out all of the letters and numbers… at least I can confirm none were lost on my watch). Excepting one or two minor splits and a few chipped edges, they have held up remarkably well.
I know there was some pattern to the way he lettered the blocks; you can spell out my name in the green upper-case solid letters and my older brother’s name in the orange outline letters at the same time. I think there is more to it than that, even, but I’d have to study them a bit more to figure it out.
The cutting board is showing its age
, but the glue lines are still tight. Mom said that my little brother did have to re-glue part of it a few years ago. It would probably respond well to a few swipes of a hand plane and some salad bowl oil. You might note it has a finish on it at the moment – probably a polyurethane – that has almost completely worn off the top, but remains on the sides and bottom. I don’t think it hurts anything being on the bottom, but if I renew the cutting surface, I’ll not replace it with more polyurethane, for obvious reasons.
The lips on either end facilitate picking it up, but the cutting board was also sized so that these overhangs set on the rim of a standard-sized sink. He obviously put a lot of thought into everything he did.
The workbench was also made with recycled pallet boards. I don’t have any pictures of the top of it, but along the back was a series of square holes; I always assumed they were for holding chisels or screwdrivers, even when I was a kid. Oh, and for holding Star Wars figures – they did that just fine, as well. Unfortunately, it never really worked out well as an actual workbench; it’s just too light.
The base is a little wiggly now, though I suspect it was not like that originally. I think I might be able to make it more solid if I were to examine it closely with that goal in mind, though it would still be too light for a proper bench of any sort. The problem is not due to loose bolts connecting the legs, but one of design. The tall, thin legs set into a dado in the base does not create the inflexible base a workbench requires. Mom says it really was meant to be used more for an art table than an actual workbench.
Which is good, because we used the workbench as an art table, more than anything. The drawer was a great depot for art supplies and the top was a perfect area for large drawing and watercolor pads. Mom said the vice was put on the right side so we could use it for sawing. I’m not sure we used it for anything more than trying to crush old toys (don’t tell my mom that, though…).
Speaking of art… Unfortunately, some of his art equipment – wooden tables and storage devices I now realize he must have built himself – was poorly stored over the years and did not survive the challenged living environments of The Machine Shed and The Garage. As mentioned above, we might have some easels somewhere still; I plan on trying to find them when I have a few free hours.
While the equipment did not fare well, I was able to salvage a good amount of his art supplies many years ago. I wasn’t being nostalgic at the time, though, I was being cheap. I needed supplies for my design and drawing classes and I had an easy source of quality materials nearby. I have an art box with pretty much all of the supplies I didn’t use up still in my basement. I use some of them in the workshop today and have found nothing better for marking on rough and finished lumber than Koh-I-Noor 2B graphite and blue polycolor sticks.
I believe my mom has (and uses) some of his artists paint brushes still. She keeps them in a semi-free form block of Douglas Fir he made into a paint brush holder with the addition of several holes of various sizes. My plan is to duplicate it at some point in the near future.
In the mean time, I’m still digging stuff up and making notes. I know we have (had?) several drawing pads full of my grandpa’s sketches and cartoons; I’d like to try and locate them when I look for the easels and see if any of it is worth saving.
Hopefully this is slightly more interesting than a history lesson on wood?
Addendum: My mom wanted me to point out that my grandfather suffered a serious stroke when he was older, but that the kitchen counter and blocks and the child-sized kitchen appliances were all made after this event.
I’ve been working really hard to try and keep my blog posts to a certain length and a limited number of pictures. So when I tackle a project that doesn’t take very long (two hours, tops) but results in lots of pictures and some information I think you might find useful, I’d rather get it put up on WKFineTools.
With that in mind, here is my latest article there, on a Spear & Jackson backsaw I cleaned up last week…
An added bonus is that we got a good clean shot of a Spear & Jackson logo Wiktor did not have in his database. I like being able to help gather such knowledge.
And, so far, the unclocked saw nut hasn’t bothered me, probably because it was done for the right reasons.
Hope you enjoy it!
My maternal grandfather and I shared the same birthday. He was also a hobbyist woodworker, so that’s two things we have in common. Unfortunately, he passed away when I was very little, so I don’t really have any memories of him, just pictures and stories.
I don’t have any of his tools, either; I’m not really sure what happened to them, but maybe I have something just as good. I grew up playing with things he made for me and my older brother – a workbench made out of recycled maple pallet wood (oh, wait… is THAT where I got this infatuation with reclaimed wood?) and 6” cubes hand-painted with letters and numbers in several fonts (he was an artist by trade), also made out of reclaimed maple pallet wood, with storage trays. The subsequent generation of kids still uses all of these items when they visit the farm. The workbench is too light and not quite sturdy enough for actual woodworking, but it has served well as an art table for 4 decades, a good indication of my grandfather’s skills.
Down in my mom’s kitchen, in the cabinet below the sink, is a walnut and maple cutting board. Painted on the underside, still present after all these years, is the phrase, “DO NOT SOAK”. It, too, was made by my grandpa and apparently we’ve done a good job of heeding his words, because after 40-some years of weekly use, it is still in good condition – another testament to his abilities.
I only know of one other thing he made that is still around. About the same time he made the blocks and workbench and cutting board, he added a 7’6” counter top to the kitchen of the 100 year old farmhouse I grew up in. It, too, was made out of reclaimed maple pallet wood (I guess the pallets back then were made with better lumber than they are now). Unfortunately, it didn’t hold up to the water and abuse of kitchen life quite as well as the cutting board did; my younger brother recently removed it and replaced it with a newer one.
As I mentioned in my last post, I’m a sucker for nostalgia. So when I found out the counter was still in one piece and sitting in storage, I thought I might try and resurrect it, putting it back to work in my shop.
I rescued it from the machine shed (I don’t know about other farms, but on ours every out building has a unique name – potting shed, tool shed, grainery, old chicken coop, machine shed, and so on…) and cleaned it up. Once again, I transformed my versatile Venza into a small moving van and I was able to haul it up to my house. It stayed in the garage for a few months until last weekend, when my need for more space in the garage coincided with an increased motivation to get some storage built in the shop. During the little man’s nap, I quietly maneuvered the 7.5’ behemoth into my lair…
I have a somewhat uncomplicated plan for a base that involves 4”x4” Douglas Fir posts for the legs and some clear 2×4 material from the box store, all of which has been acclimating in the shop for several months. As you might see in the pictures, I have some issues with the top to deal with, as well – a split towards the left end and some glue joints that have come undone need to be repaired. I’m not totally sure how I’m going to go about fixing them just yet; I was thinking of shoring up the bottom with a few battens and then filling in any gaps with some epoxy. I don’t need this to be a rock solid workbench; I need a relatively flat work area where I can make notes, work on drawings and project ideas, set my coffee cup, and store some tools and fixtures and jigs underneath.
Mostly, I want to take something my grandpa made and give it new life. I want a reminder, every time I walk into the shop, of what came before me.
I think my grandpa might have liked that, too.
I’m a sucker for nostalgia.
My dad used to hang barn paintings by a local artist in his doctor’s office; now I hang some of those very paintings over the mantle in my house. I have a few (… or five) 4-Runner Matchbox cars on my desk at work in remembrance of the SUV I should have never sold. The kitchen counter my grandfather made out of recycled maple pallet wood 40 years ago for our 100 year old farmhouse is currently in my garage, ready to be repurposed as a counter down in my workshop (if I can maneuver it through the house in one piece). I could go on for some time, as you might be able to imagine.
So when Charlie Laidlaw sent me a link to an article about the Chippendale International School of Furniture bringing the idea of the shepherd’s hut back to life (New Lease Of Life For Historic Shepherd’s Hut – you should absolutely read the article; it’s very well written), I was immediately drawn to it.
And as I read through the article, I couldn’t help but picture a slightly larger version of this sitting in my backyard as a workshop or maybe a little hunting shack or blacksmith shop on my brother’s farm. Honestly, it didn’t take much for me to envision having one of these on a sheep ranch… in Scotland. (Not entirely sure how easily my wife would be able to envision that, however.)
The other bit of greatness I want to point out in the article is the man posing as a shepherd in the pictures. That is Anselm Fraser, the Principal of the Chippendale School. And he is wearing a kilt. Not just any kilt, though…
He wears kilts made out of wood! I think someone just upped the ante on me. I’m afraid I’ll probably have to fold for this hand, Anselm; I have way too much on my plate at the moment. But maybe sometime down the road I’ll go all in and we’ll see how well the Campbell tartan translates into wood.
I will also be flagging the Chippendale School for later reference. They offer a class called the Chippendale Experience Course, which is a week-long furniture making class. Let’s see… spending a week in a Scottish school set in the farmlands of East Lothian, learning how to make things out of wood from a man in a wooden kilt?
That sounds about right up my alley.
Like the beeswax I picked up for almost nothing last month, I snagged a jar of old screws about a year ago when I was at an estate sale because it seemed a deal too good to pass up. I had no immediate use for the screws, but I knew they were old, and old is better when you’re talking woodworking screws – older screws often used stronger steel and stronger steel means fewer broken screws and cammed-out heads.
Last month, I was trying to clean up the clutter-bench (relic of the previous owner; it isn’t useful for anything besides putting stuff on, so that’s what will happen until I tear it down and remove it) and I spotted the jar. I picked it up and stared at it for a minute, wondering if it was something I really needed to keep or if I’d wasted a dollar. I put it back down, thinking I’d hold on to it a bit longer.
Now we have to go back in time, about six months, to pick up the thread for the rest of the story.
One day early this summer, I was looking through the inventory of a store on my most frequented on-line auction site. I’d picked up some antique hardware from them in the past and I wanted to see if something there might strike my fancy for a future project I had in mind. I came across just the thing I wanted – an old, cast iron coat hook with some nice detail work. It even came with mounting screws! They only had one listed, so I bought it.
The next week, the seller listed one exactly like it. Dang; wish I’d known that before! I contacted them to find out if they had any additional ones, but they said no. For some reason, though, I didn’t immediately buy the second one. I saved the listing and sat on it, thinking. I do that sometimes and, after a few months or a year, I might delete the listing or suddenly buy it because I finally have it figured out in my head as to whether or not I’ll use it. That’s just how I work.
Now, once again, we move forward in time…
This second coat rack sat in my Saved Listings box until last week, when I had some extra funds handy and I’d finally decided to go ahead with the project and bought it. When the package showed up, I pulled the coat hook out to give it a better look. It was just like the other one – old, cast iron, exact same casting, with remnants of a bronze wash on parts of it – so much so, that it is easy to assume they were together in their previous home, as well.
Almost like a cartoon or a bad comedy, I squeezed open the manila envelope it came in and turned it upside down to get the mounting screws. And nothing came out. I couldn’t stop myself from looking inside to confirm it was empty. Indeed, it was. No screws. Dang.
I pulled out the first coat hook and screws and laid them out next to the second one and pondered them for a bit, as I’m wont to do in such situations. And then I remembered the old French’s Mustard jar of screws I’d considered getting rid of just the week before. I grabbed it off of the clutter-bench, poured the screws out onto my sharpening counter, and sorted through them. And then cackled in glee as I found SIX (6) screws that exactly match the other four! Mine took a bath in Evaporust after I got them, so they have a nicer matte grey look to them, but…
Congratulations, Mr. Jar of Screws, today you have earned your place in my shop.
Post Script Edit: The coat hook project is something for my own shop. I want to do something that is MORE than just a board with some hooks screwed to it. I have an idea forming, but if anyone ELSE has any ideas they’d like to put forth, I’m all ears!
Seems like it was just two months ago we were all cavorting about in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, at Woodworking In America 2014, doesn’t it? What? You didn’t see me there? Ah, that’s because Winston-Salem was just too much of a drive for me. Sorry.
But WIA 2015 is going to be in Kansas City, Missouri!
Now that is a drive I can make! What’s more, we have friends in the general area we never get to visit often enough, so we’ll start trying to coordinate something with them and we can turn it into a family trip! Who knows – maybe the little shop helper will make an appearance. It would partially depend on which parental unit he’s favoring that month. It changes. Often. And for no apparent reason.
Anyway, maybe I’ll see you there? You can also look for me in Amana, Iowa, in May of next year, as well!
I’m quite excited for the chance to make both events!
If you haven’t yet stumbled across Darbin Orvar, then you need to step right… over… here.
If you’re more of a watcher and not a reader, then do note she has a very active YouTube channel.
One of her latest videos, which covers 15 uses for bees wax, is not terribly long, but so useful to woodworkers and non-woodworkers alike it requires special consideration. Get a pen and paper and take some notes (or just go to her blog post on the topic), pick up a hotplate and some aluminum pots at Goodwill, and get to it.
Oh, what’s that you say? You don’t have any leather to care for, outdoor furniture to protect, fabric to waterproof, nails you want to drive easier/faster, matches you want to light in the rain, skin to hydrate, drawers to slide, wooden spoons to recondition, table saw tops to attend, cutting boards to renew, hand saws to make work easier, fires to start, iron to protect from rust or, ummm… oily Danish people to wax?
Yeah, thought so. I’ll wait while you get your pen.
Of course now I totally feel justified in the purchase of this huge bag of bees wax I stumbled across at an estate sale a few weeks ago for $2, even though I have a full pound of it sitting in a bag at home. Sometimes you see a deal and you don’t know quite what you might do with it, but you KNOW it isn’t something you should pass up. (I didn’t have to do anything to justify buying the seven Swiss rifflers for a buck a piece.)
I can also put some of those bottles my wife complains I keep squirreling away to good use!
After you’ve spent a bit of time reading the fun words she writes and listening to the things she says in that great lilted accent, maybe you’ll see what I saw. Not necessarily someone who is a mind-boggling expert in woodworking, but someone:
* with obvious skill and talent
* who is utterly passionate about what she’s doing
* who isn’t afraid to experiment and play around with different techniques
* who loves repurposing and reusing to reduce waste to a bare minimum (she uses the stone dust residue from inside her tile saw to make grout, for Pete’s sake! WOW!)
* who keeps her Bourbon in a crystal decanter
* who has great presence in front of the camera
* who has fun doing what she does
* with a good eye for woodworking design and videography and editing
Most importantly, she is active. She is energy incarnate! You might not be interested in everything she’s doing, but surely something in her shotgun blast of topics is going to catch your eye. And you’re going to be inspired to stop reading my blog (give me just another minute, though! And just at this moment in time; obviously, I don’t want you to forever stop reading the words that I write!) and get out in your shop and just… build! Even if the end result isn’t perfect, even if you don’t have the most expensive and rare tools or a fully decked out shop! Do! And you’ll learn something and hopefully have fun. She is the embodiment of the motto of that inebriated wooden somethingorother guy… Make Something!
By the way… her name is Linn. Darbin is the dog.